Thought Leaders Are Needed at All Levels: Six Steps to Becoming One

Thought Leaders Are Needed at All Levels: Six Steps to Becoming OneWe often think of thought leaders as famous people who write books and give TED talks, and some of that is true. But thought leaders exist at all levels of organizations. They invest the time and energy to become expert in a particular subject or skill and then generously share that expertise, engage in dialogue around different opinions and approaches, and keep growing their knowledge and insights.

Even if you never address major audiences, publish a book or are sought out for expert comment by the media, you can increase your value and influence in your field now by developing a reputation for helping others through your knowledge and insights. Consider these ideas to become an entry-level or early-stage thought leader.

  1. Become an expert. To become an entry-level thought leader, you must become an expert in your discipline and areas of responsibility. That starts with a commitment to proactively seek new knowledge and grow your skills to better serve others. Attend conferences and complete online coursework to build new competencies and seek out stretch opportunities and mentoring relationships that will help you build value. No matter where you sit, when you learn all that you can in that role, and even stretch beyond it, you can make yourself indispensable.
  2. Listen for what others need. You can also increase your influence and value by paying keen attention to how you can help others meet their goals. Tune in to what colleagues, customers and other stakeholders most need, and then build the expertise to deliver against them. The more you can help, the greater your presence, connections and influence will be.

Another important aspect of listening is that it’s one of the fastest ways to build knowledge. If you feel you already have all the answers, you risk missing important new developments. Effective thought leaders share their insights, but they are also humble enough to learn from others.

  1. Look for reverse mentoring opportunities. Most mentoring relationships involve a senior person helping a junior team member by sharing their wisdom, insights and advice. When the same thing happens in the other direction, it’s called reverse mentoring. Younger team members can often help more senior leaders master new technologies or provide insights into how their generation relates to current cultural trends, what information sources are most trusted, or how purchase decisions are made. If the opportunity presents itself, respectfully offer to serve as a resource while being careful to defer to their position of authority and any needs around confidentiality.
  2. Combine thinking with doing. Early career roles often focus on hands-on work and tangible deliverables which are great ways to demonstrate your expertise and commitment to excellence, but may offer little room for strategic thinking. Look for additional opportunities to contribute value by thinking through the implications of what you’re working on. For example, if you’re asked to write ad copy to promote a new product in an industry publication, you might present additional ideas about supporting the effort through social media or having a presence at a virtual conference.

Simon Sinek’s concept of the golden circle can help you expand your thinking. He shows three concentric rings with what your organization does in the outside ring, how you do it in the next ring and, most importantly, why you do it in the center. Most people can easily articulate what they and their organization do (the products and services you offer). Many can articulate how they differ from competitors, or their unique value proposition (USP). But, according to Sinek, very few can explain why they do what they do — their purpose or cause. Understanding more of your department and organization’s why can help you become a more strategic contributor.

  1. Volunteer to do more. You’re already looking for ways to expand your expertise and offer additional insights related to current projects, but now you need to find ways to increase visibility and connections across the organization. Volunteering can help. That can mean literally volunteering in community efforts your organization supports, such as a reading program with local schoolchildren. It can also mean volunteering to take on work that simply isn’t getting done. Perhaps no one is sharing minutes or follow-up notes from department meetings. There’s still no assigned office space or laptop for the intern who arrives next week. The department’s monthly speaker series has fallen by the wayside. Volunteering for tasks that need to be done, but aren’t getting done, positions you as someone who is willing to do what it takes to lead.
  2. Challenge the status quo. Team members who are newer to an organization or earlier in their careers can often look at entrenched processes with fresh eyes. When you see things that can be improved, respectfully share your ideas and offer to implement a trial approach.

The process of becoming a thought leader is one you will pursue throughout your career by expanding skills, fearlessly exploring new ideas and consistently anticipating the needs of key stakeholders. As you rise in your career, you will grow your sphere of influence and may even become a nationally-recognized expert. But becoming — and remaining — a thought leader will always revolve around relentless learning of your own.